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Hard core golfers head to Orange County

<p>When they take a winter vacation in Florida, Canada’s recreational golfers might bring the family and hit the usual tourist haunts while squeezing in a couple rounds at the nearest resort course.</p>

Orlando facility has ‘world’s largest’ driving range

orange county national golf center & lodge/canadian press

A view of the 7,350-yard Panther Lake course, one of two first-rate championship courses at the Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge in Orlando, Fla. The centre is a destination for serious golfers, and claims to have the world’s largest practice range.

When they take a winter vacation in Florida, Canada’s recreational golfers might bring the family and hit the usual tourist haunts while squeezing in a couple rounds at the nearest resort course.

The hard core player, on the other hand, might just go straight to Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge.

“Strictly golf,” director of golf Alan Walker says proudly of the sprawling 373-hectare, 45-hole public facility that sits on a nondescript piece of property off the southwestern edge of Orlando.

“It’s a golf destination —there’s no swimming pools, no playgrounds, no tennis, nothing like that. It’s for serious golfers.”

There are few places in the world better suited to developing one’s game than Orange County National, where journeyman Nationwide Tour, Canadian Tour and mini-tour pros are an off-season fixture in a city widely considered the game’s unofficial professional capital.

Orange County National — which plays host in December to golf’s toughest test, the PGA Tour 2007 Q-School finals — boasts two first-rate championship courses: The narrow, 7,350-yard Panther Lake course, which has water in play on 12 of its 18 holes; and the more open, links-style Crooked Cat layout, which stretches to nearly 7,500 yards.

The tests come early on the Panther Lake layout. The beefy 470-yard par-four third demands a long, accurate drive to a narrow strip of fairway framed by bunkers and water, then a difficult long or mid-iron approach over water to an ­undulating, well-guarded ­gr­een.

At Crooked Cat, the 544-yard fourth is the No. 1 handicap hole, a skinny, straightforward classic that will reward a long, straight tee shot with a chance to reach the green in two, depending on which of the four sets of tees you choose to play.

But the real strength of Orange County National is its ability to cater to the dedicated range rat. An expansive, 360-degree practice range — billed as the world’s largest — has a circumference of more than a mile, enough short grass to wear out even Vijay Singh. Indeed, on a recent PGA Demo Day, some 7,000 visitors crowded on to the practice tees and pumped more than 75,000 balls into the bowl-shaped target area. “We had three range pickers running constantly,” Walker said.

There’s also a spacious chipping area, a nine-hole short course called the Tooth that’s ranked among the best of its kind in the U.S. where kids can play for free with an adult, and the ultimate perk for the devoted golfer: A lit practice green for those times when you run out of daylight.

Orange County National has a no-frills lodge for players taking part in one of the facility’s many golf schools or just looking for a place to stay that’s handy to the first tee. It’s also home to the Junior Golf Academy of Canada, an instructional program for elite Canadian juniors that runs from August through May under the watchful eye of acclaimed teacher Sean Foley, the national coach for the Canadian Junior Golf Association.

Though Orange County National has long been popular with the locals, Walker says Canadians have been filling out the tee sheet more and more of late, along with visitors from around the world. “We could almost be Orange County International,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve seen as many as, just recently, seven different countries represented on our practice facility.”

One misconception among Canadian golfers, he adds, is that Orlando is strictly a wintertime destination. “It’s really turned into a year-round season for the visitors coming down,” Walker says.

“Consistently around here, people would say we have quality golf courses — and we’re a public facility,” Walker says. “That’s kind of awesome to be able to say we’re able to offer the best of the best of anybody.”

orange county national golf center and lodge

Green fees at Orange County National Golf Center and Lodge (varies by weekday):

  • Panther Lake: $90-$150 US until April 22; $65-$110 the rest of the year.

  • Crooked Cat: $80-$140 until April 22; $55-$100 the rest of the year.

  • Fees include range balls, on-course lunch, $10 golf shop voucher and personalized bag tag.

Lodge rates:

  • $101-$111 until April 8.

  • $91-$101 April 9 to May 13.

  • $81-$91 May 14 to Oct. 7.